Is the Amazon reaching a tipping point?

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As more and more of the rainforest being cut down, scientists worry the Amazon is nearing its so-called ‘tipping point,’ after which the forest and local climate will have changed so radically as to trigger the death of the Amazon as rainforest. Francesca Lynagh reports.

79-year-old Gertrudes Freire and her family settled in the Amazon rainforest 50 years ago…where they were met with an abundance of land and rain.

Location: Rondonia, Brazil

But now the nearby stream is more of a trickle…

more and more of the forest is being cut down…

and scientists are worried the Amazon is nearing its so-called ‘tipping point.’

The ‘tipping point’ refers to a limit after which the rainforest loses the ability to sustain itself.

In other words, the Amazon and local climate will have changed so radically as to trigger the death of the rainforest.

The consequences for biodiversity and climate change would be devastating, extinguishing thousands of species and releasing such a colossal quantity of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it would sabotage attempts to limit global climate change.

Scientists have not yet decided where exactly the Amazon tipping point is.

An aerial view shows a dead tree near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil July 28, 2021.
An aerial view shows a dead tree near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil July 28, 2021.
Reuters/Amanda Perobelli

Some researchers argue that current modeling isn’t sophisticated enough to predict such a moment at all.

But the evidence is mounting that in certain areas, localized iterations of the tipping point may already be happening.

Ecologist Ben Hur Marimon Jr. has spent many years monitoring the rainforest.

“It is exactly at this tipping point when there is no point of return because the forest can no longer regenerate. And this affects progress in the forest year after year, more and more forest. So it’s a huge effect, a fatal impact on the Amazon rainforest.”

The Amazon covers an area roughly the size of the contiguous United States and accounts for more than half of the world’s rainforest.

It exerts power over the carbon cycle like no other terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.

For example, the tree loss from an extremely dry year in 2005 released a quantity of CO2 into the atmosphere equivalent to the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined.

That’s according to a study published in Science magazine.

Even as science learns more about the devastating impact of deforestation, it has surged under President Jair Bolsonaro, who supports further opening the Amazon for mining and agriculture.

Deforestation remains at a level not seen in Brazil since 2008…

And in 2020, an area larger than Lebanon was cut from the rainforest.

Meanwhile, the Freire family members are trying their best to protect themselves from drought – by diversifying their business and planting trees around water sources.

“We fled the drought. When we got here there was a lot of water, a lot of rain, a lot of water. A lot of pasture to live off of. But unfortunately, the drought came here too. Why did I feel the need to re-forest? Because I never wanted to cut off the natural spring.”

But running out of water is likely to remain a constant and very real threat.



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